I’m packing up to head down to Houston this afternoon to spend the weekend at my mother-in-law’s house. Yes, that would be Yaya. Imagine me taking slow, deep breaths as I type this in an effort to remain calm and not start freaking out about the 436,841 things that could possibly go wrong.
Since I’m busy packing up the entire contents of our house and trying to cram it into our minivan (at least that’s what it feels like — traveling with three under four is no small feat), I’m going to re-run a post I wrote for an old blog during a week that I spent at Yaya’s house a couple years ago:
This post was originally published on October 30, 2005
My own personal reality TV show:
5 tales from Yaya’s house
This morning I woke up to her yelling into the phone, clearly getting someone straightened out on an issue on which they disagreed. Towards the end of the call the person on the other end acquiesced, and she accepted his apology and his promise to do better in the future. Later when I asked her who she’d been talking to she casually said it was the mayor. I’m not sure what she’d called him about, but evidently this is not the first time she’s called him to set him straight on various problems she has with their city.
We were at Luby’s and she found the service to be unsatisfactory, which always makes me start scanning the room for the nearest place to hide. She ended up loudly telling the waitress, the manager and various people at other tables next to us that the server at the salad station was “more useless than t*ts on a boarhog.”
She was telling someone on the phone that her son (my husband) has degrees from Yale, Columbia, and this other school that she’s not so sure is a reputable institution because she’d never heard of it, Stanbrook or Stancliff or something like that [referring to Stanford].
A few months ago when I sent her some pictures of my son (her only grandchild) she said that at least twenty people had agreed that he was the cutest baby in the whole world. When I asked how 20+ people had seen these pictures since she’d just received them in the mail that day, she explained that she’d immediately gone down to the local Wal-Mart and started flagging people down, demanding that they tell her whether this was not in fact the cutest baby they had ever seen. She stayed for about an hour, until she was convinced that she had empirically proved my son’s cuteness.
Her neighborhood is a bit rough, and some local youths who were rumored to be gang members had been going around knocking over trash cans and vandalizing houses. Her neighbor came by to warn her about these boys so that she could hurry inside to safety if she saw them coming.
The next day she heard a “ruckus” outside and looked to see that they had knocked over her trash cans. She bolted outside after them. When they started to run she chased them down, eventually cornering them. She forcibly held them there while she called the police and didn’t leave until they were in custody.
Her neighbor was horrified at the story, pointing out that they know where she lives. “What if they come after you?” the neighbor asked. My mother-in-law chewed her toothpick for a moment while she thought about it, then just shrugged and said, “they’d better bring a gun.”
Being stung by scorpions in bed: some people are bothered by this idea, others are not, and never the twain shall meet
Yaya and I had another go-round about scorpions today (although this time, thankfully, we were talking about theoretical scorpions and not actual scorpions that were being shaken in cups in front of my face). It all started when I explained to her that that it keeps me up at night to ponder the following data:
In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that a few weeks ago a nice friend at a baby shower told me that when she lived in France they had scorpions in their house and this never happened to her. At first her statement shattered my perception that scorpions always target people in beds at night. But then I had a delayed reaction in which I realized that she said this was in France. These are French scorpions. These are work/life balance scorpions. Maybe her experience indicates that not all scorpions are as inherently aggressive and creepy as I thought they were, or maybe les scorpions were en grève because the threadcount on her sheets wasn’t high enough. The data is inconclusive, hence it has been omitted from the chart.
Anyway, after taking a moment to ask if I seriously lie awake at night stressing out about things in chart form (yes, welcome to the world of a neurotic nerd), my mother-in-law gave me this look that all my Texan relatives give me when the subject comes up, a sort of bemused smile that says, “And the problem is…?” I wanted to react by sputtering hysterically, “And the problem is WAKING UP TO SCORPIONS STINGING ME IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT WHILE I AM SOUND ASLEEP HOW CAN YOU NOT SEE WHAT THE PROBLEM IS THERE?!” but I decided to make a futile attempt to have a civilized dialogue on the subject, out of morbid curiosity if nothing else.
Yaya took this opportunity to explain to me that it is only because of my pampered middle-class lifestyle that I even worry about this. She offered some light stories from her childhood of scorpions attacking them in the course of daily life. “Those suckers sure would get us good every time we got on that tire swing!” she recounted with a chuckle. “And we didn’t worry about it when they got in our beds — you’d just brush ‘em off if they got ya’ while you were sleeping.” She assured me that if I’d grown up in rural Texas in the days before fancy-schmancy houses with things like insulation and well-sealed walls, having a few scorpions in the bed here and there would be just a natural part of life for me.
This is not, of course, something I can prove empirically. But I am certain — like really, really certain — that under no circumstances would I ever be nonchalant about scorpions in my bed at night. Maybe I am missing some sort of gene that makes you chilled out about surprise nocturnal attacks by stinging arachnids, but I do not believe that my distress about this situation is due to lack of exposure to it.
Her next point — one that I’ve heard before and found no less perplexing this time than the first 100 times I heard it from other Texan relatives — was that scorpion stings are no worse than wasp stings. Really? And to think I was all stressed out about this! I mean, seriously, that was the only thing I was worried about, the toxicity level of the venom. Because, other than that, there is nothing at all disturbing about being woken from a peaceful slumber in the still of the night by an explosion of pain and realizing that there is a scorpion wrapped up in your pajamas, attacking you, repeatedly stinging you, and between the darkness and your delirious state you cannot immediately locate it to get it off of you. As long as it’s not worse than a wasp sting, that should be fine. …Oh, wait, no, that still sounds like a hellish nightmare.
At this point the conversation ended with me uttering a long, defeated sigh and Yaya needing to yell at someone named Billy Ray on her cell phone.
What I have found is this: if you don’t see what is disturbing about the idea of being stung by scorpions in bed at night, it is not something I can explain to you. I have tried repeatedly to show Yaya and my other Texan relatives my way of thinking on this, to find common ground in our different viewpoints, and I submit that it cannot be done. It is an unbridgeable gap.
At least I have a blog. Evidently if this ever does happen I will get no sympathy from my relatives about it; but hopefully, somewhere out there on the internet, I will be able to find at least one person who could see why I might be unsettled about scorpions in my bed.
Last month my mother-in-law had a little spiritual crisis. I’ve mentioned before that she has always had a solid, common-sense understanding of God and Christianity. But a series of events last month led to a sort of dark night of the soul. Her real estate business had been slow for a while, and a run of bad luck in January left her with very little income for the month. A lot of the people she knows believe that financial prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing and, indeed, it seems that they have been blessed in that department — they have booming businesses and swelling bank accounts. One acquaintance recently implied that my mother-in-law must not be praying correctly if her business isn’t doing well, and it just about brought her to a breaking point to think that not only is she having trouble paying her bills, but that the situation could indicate that she has somehow fallen out of favor with God.
One night while she was visiting us, she got a phone call about the one deal that she’d thought was a sure thing, that she was counting on to help her get by for the next couple of months. The buyers backed out. The deal had fallen through. It was nobody’s fault, just an unforeseeable fluke.
“What am I doing wrong?!” she cried when she got off the phone. “I tithe, I pray every single day, I love God — so why is he angry with me?!” She wondered aloud about retirement, about the future, if her financial struggles would ever end. She wondered why God hadn’t answered her prayers for financial prosperity as he seemed to have done with so many of her friends. “What am I supposed to think about this?” she asked.
I wanted so desperately to help, but didn’t know what to say. We talked for a little while but I couldn’t come up with any helpful advice. At the time I had just started praying the Liturgy of the Hours, so I asked if she wanted to join me for Vespers. She was too upset. This deal falling through was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and she just couldn’t even pray right now. She turned on the television to take her mind off the situation, and I opened my prayer book to find the right page for the day’s prayers. Not knowing what else to do, I offered the prayer for her, hoping that God would answer her prayer to better understand her current circumstances.
I couldn’t believe it when I saw the heading for the day’s evening prayer: Psalm 49: The emptiness of riches. Before the first excerpt from the Psalm was a line from the New Testament to meditate on while the Psalm is read, Matthew 12:23: “It is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“Listen to this!” I exclaimed, excitedly asking her if she thought this was an answer to her prayers. But she was despondent, saying she just didn’t want to hear it right now. I fidgeted in my seat as I read Psalm 49, which directly talks about money and wealth. “You should really check this out — what are the odds that this would be the reading right now?” I said as I read verse after verse that specifically addressed her situation.
As I continued with the readings, I saw that the prayers for that evening were a treasure trove of wisdom on worldly riches and the Christian life. There was so much food for thought there, it was frustrating to see that she wasn’t listening. I raised my voice a bit when I got to the antiphon for the second part of the Psalm (“Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, says the Lord”) but she didn’t hear.
My point here is not to make a statement about what exactly God might have been trying to tell her there, and I am certainly not criticizing her since she’s certainly light-years ahead of me in her faith. My only takeaway was that, from my perspective, it seemed so clear that God was somehow reaching out to her in the midst of her anguish, that perhaps meditating on these scriptures might very well lead her to a breakthrough, to the comfort she desired. But she couldn’t see it, because she’d turned away.
The story has a happy ending: my mother-in-law reports that she eventually felt better about her situation. It’s really stuck with me, though, to have had the opportunity to see someone as faithful and spiritually mature as mother-in-law miss an opportunity to see what might have been an answered prayer because she’d turned inward in despair. I realized: if someone as naturally devout as she is can do that…I must do it all the time!
I thought of how frustrated an outside observer looking at my own behavior would feel to see me do the exact same thing: when I cry out to God in frustration, do I even attempt to then put myself in a peaceful state so that I might be receptive to any answer he sends my way? No. When I ask for help with a certain situation and look out for God’s answer to my prayer, am I open to any answer that he might give, in any form? Not usually. So often I look out for an answer that fits my requirements, and probably miss answers that don’t look like what I expected them to look like.
Since then, I’ve thought of this lesson any time I’ve been tempted to say that God didn’t answer one of my prayers: did he not answer it, or was I perhaps not really listening?
A couple Fridays ago my husband and I snuck out for a much-needed date night at our favorite hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant. When I walked into the restaurant, where the owner and his assistant craft every meal from scratch, I actually got shaky: I’d had such a crazy day that I didn’t get a chance to eat lunch, so I hadn’t eaten in almost twelve hours. I am a pasta-holic anyway, and in my extreme low blood sugar state I whispered to my husband that if anyone came between me and the three-cheese meat lasagna there was going to be violence. I was only sort of kidding.
It was like something out of a horror movie, then, when I remembered that I’d committed to giving up all wheat products for Lent. I could practically hear dramatic music like the theme from Psycho playing as I stumbled back in horror, realizing that not only was pasta off the list, but meat was out as well since it was a Friday. As I perused the menu in a dizzy state of ravenous shock — fettuccini alfredo, five-cheese baked ziti, beef ravioli with butter parmesan sauce — the low-blood-sugar-having side of my personality called into question the entire concept of giving something up for Lent. I turned to prayer (it’s a good thing God knows what’s in our hearts, because my prayer was something like, “AAAAAAAH! NOOOOOOO!”) and was quickly reminded that what I was going through was indescribably minuscule compared to what Christ suffered on the cross because of my sins. I realized the absurdity of even saying “craving pasta” in the same sentence with “Christ’s sufferings on the cross,” and might have even managed to feel glad that my discomfort had been a catalyst to turn my thoughts to God.
And then the waiter set a fresh-baked loaf of bread in front of me, and any bit of spiritual maturity I may have managed to muster was gone as soon as the warm aroma wafted my direction. There was that frantic, hypoglycemic devil on my shoulder again, whispering that giving up wheat is insane, that it’s downright unreasonable not to eat a little bread, that I should just do some other form of penance later. Just as I was about to take a little bite, somewhere in my mind I heard my mother-in-law’s voice say:
“WHAT YOU THINK IS OUT THERE, AIN’T OUT THERE!”
This is one of my mother-in-law’s favorite sayings. I first heard it when she told me of a conversation she’d had with a lady who was planning to divorce her husband because the “spark” was gone and she wanted to live the high life in the dating world. Once my mother-in-law ascertained that the husband in question was hard-working, kind, and a good father, she grabbed the woman by the arm and told her of the struggles she’s faced in her life, and ended her story with, “Listen! What you think is out there, AIN’T OUT THERE!” (When I asked her if this person ended up getting a divorce she said she didn’t know because this was a lady behind her in line at Wal-Mart.)
My mother-in-law, whom we call “Yaya,” is a tough Southern Baptist gal who is really more of a force of nature than a regular person. She’s also the Albert Einstein of common sense. She had a very rough childhood, growing up in poverty in rural Texas, and ended up becoming a single mother after an unwanted divorce when her son (my husband) was still a toddler. Her only education beyond high school is a Ph.D. from the School of Hard Knocks, and it is only through tough-as-nails determination and her strong faith in God that she clawed her way out of poverty and built a better life for herself and her son. She has a passion for helping people improve their lives by sharing the life lessons she’s learned, and though her methods for communicating her wisdom are often unorthodox and sometimes unappreciated, I have found that there is a lot of truth in what she says.
In particular, I keep coming back to her oft-repeated line, “WHAT YOU THINK IS OUT THERE, AIN’T OUT THERE!” (Sorry for the all caps, but it’s the only proper way to quote her.) She used this line in response to her neighbor who started to gamble away his family’s savings, to her friend who wanted to stop going to church because she wanted more free time, to the relative who worked eighty hours a week to try to get a glamorous promotion, and to countless bank tellers, grocery store checkers, and people in line behind her at various places throughout the greater Houston area.
What she is essentially trying to convey is this:
You will find, my friend, that the only possible way to find deep fulfillment and satisfaction in life is to make love your number one priority: center your entire life around loving others, loving He who is Love itself, and your soul will rejoice in the glory of finally finding its true purpose. Anything else is a distraction. Whether it’s a hot job or a good day at the casino or a decadent meal or a nice car or a huge house, it will bring you only fragile, fleeting joy. Chasing after the comforts and pleasures of this world will lead only to frustration and emptiness. It is only by picking up your cross and seeking to follow the One who originally blazed the trail of a life of self-emptying love that the thirst from deep in your soul will finally be quenched.
It comes out as:
Listen! WHAT YOU THINK IS OUT THERE, AIN’T OUT THERE! [This statement usually accompanied by finger pointing and/or arm grabbing.]
Though her parlance is rather more rough around the edges, I find it to be refreshingly concise and easy to remember — particularly during Lent.
That night at the restaurant Yaya’s salty wisdom saved me from stuffing bread into my mouth and just telling myself that I’d do some other penance later. That night — as well as when a friend brought over homemade cinnamon buns, when I was desperately hungry at the grocery store and watched the kids share a cookie, when I was at a church event and some of the ladies brought freshly baked kolaches — I thought of her words, and asked myself, “What do I think is ‘out there’ in this food? What do I think eating this is going to do for me?” The answer, of course, was that I only wanted the pleasing sensation, which would quickly fade to nothing and leave me wanting more.
Doing something simple like giving up a certain food for Lent has made it so much more real to me that what I think is out there…ain’t out there. After all the woe-is-me theatrics over the bread or the pasta or the cookie, abstaining from eating them had zero impact on my life by any metric that really matters. It’s made it so clear that while there’s nothing wrong in appreciating those delicious foods and enjoying the pleasure they can bring, I don’t need them to be happy or fulfilled or satisfied. I don’t need them at all.
This Lent, the big theme for me is detachment. I didn’t exactly intend for that to be my big though topic this year, but I find that the more I immerse myself in traditional Catholic Lenten practices, the less I find myself susceptible to the siren song of “the world.” The simple lesson I learn each time I’m tempted to reach for a cookie or have a bite of pasta comes to mind when I’m tempted to feel like I need a new flat-screen TV like my friend has, or those little extras at the grocery store, or that stylish new outfit. All of those things are nice, and there wouldn’t be anything wrong with having them. But, like with the pasta, none of it can offer me joy of any kind of permanence.
Though giving up foods made of wheat is a small sacrifice, it has served to make me comfortably uncomfortable here in the world. On an intellectual level, I’ve known for a while now that this world is not our home; and now, by the simple act of letting go of some of the little material things I find most pleasurable, I feel it. I understand it on a level much deeper than just something you read about in books. And realizing just how little the material world alone can offer has stirred up a yearning for home, our true home, and the One who resides there.